The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.


The Prince of Bagram Prison by Alex Carr

Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks on March 11, 2008

Jamal, a 15 year old detainee at Bagram, agrees to inform for the CIA and is relocated to Spain, where his handler, Harry Comfort, is close to retirement. Harry's successor pushes Jamal for information and Jamal responds by inventing a story about seeing a man from Bagram in Madrid. This sets off a flurry of killings. Jamal's Army interrogator, Kat, is sent to Casablanca with an ex-CIA chief to find Jamal after he disappears. The CIA wants to kill Jamal and Kat doesn't want that to happen. There's a whole lot more going on, involving a dead detainee and a coverup of nefarious American shenanigans, but describing it here would risk spoiling the surprises.

Although this is an intelligent, crisply written thriller that creates a strong sense of place, the motivations for the various actions taken by the characters aren't always clear and the plot at times gets a bit muddled. Kat is a reasonably full character but most of the others (particularly the males) are stock military/spook types. A romantic entanglement felt out of place, as if it had been added to move the plot along--it didn't feel real. The facts that are being covered up seemed a little far-fetched and the ending seemed contrived. In short, I liked the writing style more than the story or the characters. I'm encouraged to try her other novels (the author, Jenny Siler, wrote this one under a pen name). The Prince of Bagram Prison is a worthy effort that comes close to succeeding as a solid novel, but doesn't quite get there.



The Homecoming by Barry B. Longyear

Published by Byron Preiss in 1989.

The Homecoming is one of the Millennium series of books published by Byron Preiss. Each book dealt with a different science fiction theme. The subject of Project Pendulum is dinosaurs (a subject that isn't exclusively in the realm of sf, like time travel or first contact, but dinosaurs do make occasional appearances in sf novels).

Dinosaurs left the Earth in appropriately large spaceships, hung out in suspended animation for quite a long time, and are now ready to reoccupy the planet. Their plan is complicated by the discovery that strange creatures called humans now occupy the Earth. The dinosaurs disagree as to their next step: some favor wiping out the humans with The Power while others want to negotiate. They settle for fact-finding, inviting humans to a meeting on one of their ships. Baxter, a former astronaut now in the business of public relations, is quickly tapped for the job of working things out with the dinosaurs.

Barry Longyear obviously didn't mean for this short novel (more of a longish short story) to be taken seriously. As comedy, it has its moments, particularly as Baxter tries to explain humor to the dinosaurs (Robert Klein playing the blues, tapping his leg, and singing "I can't stop my leg. I can't stop my leg" really is funny, but try explaining that to a dinosaur). Given the way the book ends, it might be intended to convey a serious message, but a rather obvious one.

Byron Preiss (1953-2005) was known for his efforts to marry the printed text with visual art. The Millennium series furthered that ambition by pairing stories with illustrations. The Homecoming features several black and white drawings by Alan Clark. He does a nice job on the dinosaurs. I'm no art critic, but the people in the drawings look like puppets carved from wood. Maybe that's what he intended. The book is printed on bright white, heavy, probably acid-free paper, so if you can find a copy, it should last a long time.

The Homecoming is amusing, but not much more than that.



My Friend Matt and Hena the Whore by Adam Zameenzad

First published in 1988

Adam Zameenzad's novel follows a 9-year-old boy, Kimo, and his friends Golam, Matt, and Hena, on their various journeys and adventures in war-torn African villages over the course of three years. Told from Kimo's point of view, the story is alternately hilarious and tragic -- similar, in that sense and in its poignancy, to What Is the What, although the story is quite different. Adam Zameenzad does a marvelous job of capturing a child's naive wisdom as he lets us see the world through Kimo's innocent eyes.

Kimo and his friends encounter missionaries, reporters, soldiers, beggars, relief workers, and revolutionaries as they travel from their small village to the big city and back. They are exposed to, but never quite understand: the religions of Christianity and Islam that seek to displace the village's native belief in spirits; the politics and corruption that underlie civil war; the magic of television and plumbing. As they cope with famine and violence and people who want to exploit them, they respond with resilience and humor and generosity of spirit.

Zameeenzad's short, powerful novel tells a magical, life-affirming story about kids surrounded by love and death. It deserves a wider audience.



Coils by Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen

First published in 1982

The beginning of this 1982 novel seems familiar. Donald lives a carefree life. Money is transferred into his account every month. When he tries to remember why, he gets a headache, so he stops trying. Taking his girlfriend to see his childhood home, he discovers that the town in which he grew up isn't there ... or at least it isn't the town he remembers. When he sees a shrink to get help, the doctor dies. Then his girlfriend disappears. But thanks to the one session of hypnosis he experienced before the doctor's death, he starts to remember things ....

Missing memories, implanted memories, new life, flashbacks to a forgotten life ... it all sounds like a Ludlum novel. Yet Zelazny and Saberhagen give the story a unique twist. Donald BelPatri has the ability to interface with computers, mind to machine; thus the story gains its science-fictional aspect. This, too, seems like a familiar story, but remember that the novel was published in 1982, two years before William Gibson's "ground-breaking" Neuromancer. The notion of mind-computer interfacing was still fresh when Coils was written (in Coils, the interface is telepathic, as opposed to the wired interface contemplated by other writers, although Zelazny and Saberhagen provide a halfway plausible explanation for that ability toward the novel's end). The ability to move mentally within circuitry is an integral part of the novel, and it works well, providing an interesting framework for a novel that would otherwise be fairly ordinary.

Coils is one of the better examples of the marriage of a science fiction story to a thriller. The pace is relentless, the action scenes are vivid, yet the relationship between man and machine elevates the novel to a level of intellectual intrigue that many mainstream thrillers can't manage. The main characters are well conceived, although some of the minor characters (like a televangelist who happens to have telekinetic powers) are a bit stereotypical (well, except for the telekinetic powers). And while it was more fashionable to make an evil corporation the villain in 1982 than it is today (after Enron, Halliburton, and their ilk, the reality of the evil corporation has supplanted fiction), it makes for an engaging plot device. The storytelling is smart but straightforward, making Coils an easy, entertaining read.



Dead Spy Running by Jon Stock

Published by Thomas Dunne Books on October 26, 2010; first published in Great Britain in 2009

Dead Spy Running begins with Daniel Marchant running a marathon but the story (unlike the runner) takes off at a sprinter's speed. Suspended from MI6, Marchant has personal issues: he drinks too much and his deceased father, the former Chief of MI6, is suspected of having been a traitor. During the race, Marchant observes one of the runners wearing a belt that conceals explosives -- and the runner happens to be trailing near the American ambassador. Marchant's proximity to the suicide bomber is viewed as no coincidence by the suspicious minds at MI5. Soon the CIA fixates on the notion that Marchant is working for terrorists. Even Marchant's spy girlfriend seems uncertain about Marchant's loyalty. The novel follows Marchant as he battles to clear his father's name and his own.

Much of Dead Spy Running has been done before, often by better writers: the son who wonders whether his father was a traitor, by Len Deighton; the spy with a drinking problem by Graham Greene; the mole in MI6 by John Le Carre and many others. Toward the end, however, the plot takes a twist I haven't seen before, saving the novel from being a rehash of tired stories. Dead Spy Running also has an interesting political component that's not exactly new but well done, as MI6 finds itself at odds with MI5 and the CIA.

The plot is the novel's strong point. The characters are nothing special. The CIA spooks seem a bit over-the-top in their thuggish ways, eagerly carrying out extraordinary renditions so they can conduct interrogations via waterboard. (Of course, there's a reason America's clandestine community is seen that way, but still ....) Stock's writing style is fine but far from stirring. He does have the ability to describe locations (Poland and India) with the kind of detail that adds authenticity to the novel. The pace is perfect for a spy thriller: a fast start, easing a bit as the plot sets up, then full throttle to an action-filled end. Stock doesn't resort to having Marchant perform superhuman feats to save the world, but there's plenty here for action fans.

The ending stretches the limits of credibility but I was willing to accept it because ... well, it was satisfying. I liked this novel and I would recommend it to fans of espionage fiction as a worthwhile blend of intelligent plotting and fast action.